There’s been a lot of excitement lately about the phenomenon of hyperpolyglotism: fluency in a staggering 6 (or more!) languages. Rare but omnipresent throughout the centuries, people conversant in as many as 12 or even 20 languages are surfacing more frequently than ever before – especially as new technology shrinks the world.
A recent Collins competition to find the UK’s most multilingual student resulted in the discovery of Alex Rawlings, whose story about teaching himself 11 languages made it to the BBC.
Then Timothy Doner, a 16-year-old who has already taught himself over a dozen languages, was featured in the New York Times.
For many of us, this is a reality beyond our grasp—mind-boggling to even imagine. We who struggle to master even 2 languages can’t help but gape at the casual ease with which hyperpolyglots pick up dozens. The question on everyone’s lips is: how does one become a hyperpolyglot?
First, let’s clear up some terms: what exactly does it mean to be polyglot, hyperpolyglot, or multilingual? As it turns out, the exact definitions are hazy. People considered to be hyperpolyglots have a strong grasp of 6 or more languages, but are not necessarily completely fluent in all of them. Meanwhile, polyglots are multilingual, which means they can speak several languages – though there is debate as to whether that means two, three or more. And although some definitions of “multilingual” require equal proficiency in several languages, other definitions accept a wider range of fluency. So for now, let’s give these terms some breathing room. The important thing to know is that “polyglot” derives from the Greek polyglottos, which means “many-tongued.”
Recently, writer Michael Erard wrote his book Babel No More after searching for “language explorers” like Rawlings and Doner who take pleasure in teaching themselves as many languages as possible – and have a natural aptitude for it. In an interview in the Huffington Post, Erard cleared up some of the mystery surrounding hyperpolyglots.
His first discovery: they set practical, functional language goals. “They wanted to be able to do things successfully and feel comfortable doing them. They were not obsessed with becoming natives, sounding native-like, or blending in”, quoted the Huffington article. “This from the outset makes them very different from what I think most foreign language education – wrongly – attempts to achieve, which is native-likeness… Trying to achieve a monolingual’s level of knowledge and performance in your new language is going to frustrate you.” Now that’s a page from the hyperpolyglot book worth taking.
Regarding the difference between a multilingual and a hyperpolyglot, Erard said a multilingual has “a repertoire of active languages” and can immediately use those languages fluently as needed. The hyperpolyglot, on the other hand, keeps some languages inactive, or “on ice”, and would need to “reactivate” those skills before using the language.
Can anyone become a hyperpolyglot? Apparently not. We can all become polyglots, but picking up 6 or more languages requires some special conditions. “There are people whose brains are set up to do language learning the same way some people are more talented at drawing,” said Loraine Obler, a linguist and a professor at the City University of New York, in the New York Times.
Erard elaborated in the same vein, saying, “There is a finite subset of the human population which has the right neurological equipment for learning and using lots of languages… Those who become hyperpolyglots are those who [also] meet two criteria. One, they are exposed to language material. Two, they undertake learning languages as a mission as well as acquiring the personal identity as a language learner.”
Erard also made a powerful statement about the evolution of hyperpolyglotism. As globalization increases universal access to language learning, more people with the neurology for hyperpolyglotism will realize their potential, and they’ll be able to find each other and share their passion online. “For the multilingual,” he explained, “learning another language is a way to participate in their [local] community, but for a hyperpolyglot, it always brings them away from their community [and] ties them to an imagined global community.” As hyperpolyglots across the globe link to one another online, a tribe of sorts is forming – a group of people who bond not over a shared language, but over a natural inclination toward learning lots of languages.
Sixteen-year-old Timothy Doner’s story embodies this modern element of hyperpolyglotism. When he started sharing his language skills via YouTube, he found, in addition to the encouragement of native speakers, “people like himself, who were interested in language for its own sake, a small but vibrant subculture of language geeks, one made possible only by the Internet.”
Although most of us may not have the interest or ability to learn 12 languages, we’re still “language geeks” in our own right, sharing the love of learning and culture and exploration that such geekdom entails. With the right blend of urgency, passion and practice, our brains are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. And 2 seems rather less daunting now in comparison, doesn’t it?
Do you consider yourself or someone you know to be a hyperpolyglot? Tell us in the comments!